by Chris Jackson
I've had a number of pleasantly outraged exchanges with this blog's host on the subject of Kanye West. I'm a fan. Ta-Nehisi, you may have surmised, not so much. As I was about to throw myself into a several thousand word defense of Yeezy's latest album, Kanye did me the disservice of releasing a new song, which made me realize that I was about to stick my jackrabbit paws around (apologies to Mitt Romney) the tar baby of all tar babies: defending every new statement from the man even the President took time out of his busy schedule to call a jackass. But then I scrolled down from T's last post on the subject and was pleased to see that many of his commentariat had already handily dismantled his anti-Yeezy arguments. Nice work commentariat! So instead, I'll make this post about how we listen to rap, especially in light of two new books on the subject: Jay-Z's Decoded, and Yale University Press's Anthology of Rap.
This slippery point-of-view is one of the aspects of rap that gives it its depth--and by depth, I mean its sense of enchantment and obscurity, the dimension that can't be easily measured--which is one of the keys to its power. It's one of the things, Jay argued in the book, that justifies rap as a poetic form (whether rap ever needs to be justified as anything other than rap is another argument, which Kelefa Sanneh, among others, addressed in his review of the book in The New Yorker).
This was followed by an airing of the Original Queens of Comedy, in which every punchline was bleeped pretty much all the way through; it was like watching three wild comediennes screeching koans at the audience (or reading strips of Garfield Minus Garfield). The word "bitch" was usually the only unbleeped word in every punchline. So after every joke's elaborate, energetic set up, the comedian would end by wildly gesticulating to the sound of beeeeep-bitch!-beeeeeeeep and the audience would go wild. By the time I got off the couch, I felt like I never wanted to hear the word "bitch" again, ever, even in reference to a dog or a sea cucumber.
His song "Blame Game" ends with a Chris Rock skit that some see as misogynistic (T finds it an overexplanation). But it's key: a cuckold's self-lacerating fantasy of his own humiliation, reducing the woman who leaves him and the man she leaves him for to vicious caricatures. Its point is about the narrator: this is his final, completely committed fantasy of his own abasement, borne from his own hurt and pathetic self-pity. Some might also find it funny. To me, the album's high point is Pusha T's interlude on "Runaway," which is also, to me, the album's clearest indication of its own narrative technique: the song has two voices, one, rapped by Kanye, is private, if not interior, riven with doubt, self-loathing, and confusion; the other, rapped by Pusha T, offers the public pimp face to make the same point ("you can leave if you can't accept the basics") in resolute and cold-blooded (and, in the context of song, transparently dishonest, defensive) language. The combination completely subverts the rapper-as-cold-blooded-pimp mythology. And, as narrative, it's heartbreaking in its way.
Forty minutes into the show, the idea-bereft host is accosted by his head writer, a....black nationalist, and his surly band of script-doctoring, afro-pick-wielding revolutionaries. The brothers have solved Pryor's writer's block. They have a script, a script that glorifies black unity and brings the message to the people. Concerned the teleplay sounds a bit heavy-handed, Pryor asks if there's anything funny in it. Taken aback by his incredulity, one of the writers responds. "Funny? I'm talking about really funny. Dig on this here--in one of the sketches you slap this white broad upside her head and knock her to the floor! Ain't that funny, man?"
Okay, maybe even that's not funny to you. But Beatty later makes the point that in the tradition of black humor--of humor, period--things get ugly sometimes, vicious even, and that means sometimes even the white ladies get it. Kanye ends the album with Gil Scott-Heron's monologue "Who Will Survive in America," which has its own crazy vagina-related metaphor about America--also meant to be absurd and comic, but drawing from America's own mythology. I'm not really willing to totally get behind this interpretation as a justification--his obsessiveness with the image makes me a little queasy--but at the least I think it's hard to analyze Kanye's lyrics outside of the understanding that he's fundamentally a comic, a sometimes viciously comic, rapper ... and an artist (think about the use of the American mythology of sex and skin color in the work of say, Kara Walker; it's a potent idea, still, and not one that should be off limits or restricted to "acceptable" presentations), and operating out of a tradition of which he's conscious (as indicated by the inclusion of Gil Scott-Heron and Chris Rock). And, of course, there's probably no great comedian in American history whose act I would play at a dinner party without expectation of giving some guest offense. I've tried it before--and seriously, don't do it, no matter how much you love Live on the Sunset Strip.That's funny?" Pryor asks."Yeah!""I could kick her a little, too.""Yeah!"No, kicking this white woman when she's down isn't funny, but talking about it being funny is.
Even as rap undermines its whole demented code of money, cars, ho's, and hustlers, it markets it, markets itself. It makes rap in some ways the savviest and wittiest critique of the business of art ever conducted from inside of artworks, but the critique doesn't undermine the business: it is the business.
It was wrong when C. Delores Tucker did it, it was wrong when my stepfather did it when I was 13, and it's wrong now. I think Kanye is weird and sometimes terrible and sometimes brilliant and sometimes brilliant in terrible ways and vice versa. I think he's often wildly inappropriate and offensive--but I think if I was to come down one way or the other, I 'd say he's more of a provocateur--and a crafter of ambiguous narratives--than an evangelist of hate speech. But I'm open to the conversation. It's a credit to hip-hop, as opposed to most forms of American pop culture (e.g. the Oxygen network's Tuesday-night slate), that it has almost from the beginning been having this conversation, thanks to writers like dream, Joan Morgan, Tricia Rose, and our own Ta-Nehisi Coates.
One of the sad things about the decline of hip-hop related media is that it's harder to find a serious conversation by informed parties about hip-hop, in general--I think it's those informed conversations that have shifted and deepened the way we think about rap, how we listen to it, what we notice, which is what creates a space for music that goes deeper, takes risks, becomes richer and more ambiguous, more artful. I would argue that Kanye's album falls into that category, even if it stumbles along the way. The absence of the conversation--on a popular level, outside of academia -- has been catastrophic for the form. One of the gratifying things about the popularity of Jay-Z's book is that it brought some of these debates to kids who weren't even aware they were happening (and have been ongoing for two decades).